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Putnam stores price-gouged water buyers, Morrisey says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed a complaint Friday against a Hurricane business for allegedly more than doubling the price of bottled water in the hours after last month's chemical leak into the Elk River, which left 300,000 West Virginians without potable water for days.

The complaint against Mid Valley Mart LLC and its manager and owner, Achraf Assi, was filed in Putnam Circuit Court, according to a news release from Morrisey's office. It alleges that two Mid Valley Mart stores in Hurricane raised their prices from $1.59 per gallon of Tyler Mountain Spring Water on Jan. 9 -- the day of the leak -- to $3.39 the following morning.

Under West Virginia law, it is illegal for a business to increase the price of an emergency supply or essential consumer item by more than 10 percent during a declared state of emergency and for 30 days after.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency the evening of Jan. 9, as West Virginia American Water was telling residents in nine counties not to drink, wash with or cook with the water. Bottled water was deemed an essential consumer item after West Virginia American Water issued the "do-not-use" order, Morrisey said.

The Mid Valley Mart stores kept their prices inflated for more than a week after the leak, Morrisey said.

"Our office worked diligently in the hours and days after the chemical spill to educate both citizens and businesses about the state's price-gouging laws," Morrisey said in the release. "At that time, we pledged to aggressively pursue any entity that artificially inflated prices to take advantage of citizens in a time of need. In this case, it doesn't appear that our warnings were heeded."

Representatives of Morrisey's office did not return phone calls Friday. Assi could not be reached for comment.

According to the complaint, one customer went to the store the morning of Jan. 10 and tried to buy 18 gallon-jugs of water. The clerk sold the customer six jugs, but said he would have to wait to buy the rest, "depending on whether Tyler Mountain raised its prices."

Tyler Mountain did not raise its prices, according to the complaint -- but about an hour later, the customer returned to Mid Valley Mart and was charged $3.39 per gallon for the remaining 12 gallons of water.

In the complaint, the attorney general seeks reimbursement to consumers and fines of more than $5,000 per violation.

In his news release, Morrisey said his office assembled a price-gouging team within the Consumer Protection Division after the emergency declaration, and established a 24-hour hotline for consumers to call to report price gouging.

"As we all continue to deal with the effects of this spill, I encourage consumers to report any price gouging they may be experiencing. To date, our office has issued six investigative subpoenas and served cease and desist letters to more than 15 entities," Morrisey said. "My office will continue to aggressively pursue and investigate instances of gouging as they arise."

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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